Barbara Walters' wonderfully dishy memoir, just out in paperback, is titled "Audition." Why? "No matter how high my profile became, how many awards I received, or how much money I made, my fear was that it could all be taken away from me," she wrote. "I have ... always felt I was auditioning, either for a new job or to make sure I could hold on to the one I had." She also describes herself as suffering from "insecurity."
So how did she ever become successful? To succeed, the current American mantra says, it's necessary to believe in yourself and be very self-confident.
As it turns out, Walters is an example of a larger trend. In his book "Good to Great," Jim Collins found that the most successful CEOs of companies were humble, hard-working, and gave their teams credit - not the profile of the supremely self-confident businessman one might expect. "I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job," said one CEO, sounding a lot like Walters.
Overall, data linking self-esteem and/or narcissism to success are lacking. Most studies find that self-esteem is not correlated with academic performance once family background is controlled and reverse causation (good performance causing higher self-esteem) is accounted for. Self-esteem doesn't hurt, but it doesn't help either. Narcissistic college students make worse grades and are more likely to drop out. In the U.S., the ethnic group that scores lowest on both self-esteem and narcissism is Asian-Americans, who also show the best academic performance. If this seems paradoxical, it's not - self-esteem can help you persevere, but it can also make you feel you're already good enough. Someone like Walters, who describes the insecurity of low self-esteem, is motivated to keep working to prove themselves - to "audition" over and over.
Yet the idea that one must be self-confident, even narcissistic, to succeed is taken virtually for granted. It's the reason parents and teachers think raising children with high self-esteem is so important. "Believe in yourself and anything is possible" is common advice.
When I talk to young people about the research showing that their generation is more narcissistic, few question the conclusion - something that surprised me at first. But, they say, their generation has to be narcissistic to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. It's their turn to be surprised when I tell them self-centeredness - even self-esteem - won't necessarily help them succeed.
They are right that the world has become more competitive, and that there is more emphasis now than ever on professional and material success. But it's distressing that they have a mistaken idea about how to compete. If people feel they need to be narcissistic to succeed, others are going to suffer the consequences, and the individual will eventually as well. In the end, no one likes a jerk, and things fall apart.
Ironically, being the opposite of narcissistic - someone who's empathic and gets along well with others - is much more likely to lead to success than self-centeredness. There's a message we need to get out - the beginning of a cure for the narcissism epidemic.